Trouble in paradise: Fires, oil spill mar vacation spots

January 23, 1994|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

Australia-bound? Proceed with caution, and expect a substantial portion of the national parkland to be black and crunchy.

Puerto Rico? Don't cancel your plans, but if your arrival date is in the next week or two, prepare for the sight of oil-spill cleanup crews along the island's most prominent mile and a half of beaches.

From any angle, the images of last week's fires in New South Wales and oil spill off Puerto Rico were troubling. Authorities say that some of the affected territory, most notably Australia's Royal National Park, may not be the same for generations. Scores of fires burned, many out of control for days. But if you're a traveler already holding tickets to either accident-marred destination -- or if you're contemplating a trip to those locales -- take a much closer look before you abandon plans. Along with the devastation in Australia, you're likely to find some reassuring news about most of the country's top tourist attractions. In Puerto Rico, the spill trouble is much milder.

The bush fires in southeast Australia -- more than 150 of them, many attributed to arsonists -- began to break out in the first

days of January. About 1.5 million acres of grassland and forest in the state of New South Wales have burned. Some flames rose in Sydney's suburbs, destroying more than 200 homes, killing four people. But downtown Sydney, its harbor, bridge and opera house all escaped damage. Airline schedules are normal, and though highway access and rail service were curtailed during the worst of the fires, authorities said all those routes should be back to normal now.

In Puerto Rico, the trouble began Jan. 7 when the barge Morris J. Berman hit a coral reef and spilled 750,000 gallons of heating oil, coating an estimated 20 square miles of ocean. Cleanup operations collected a large share of the spill, but the damaged areas included Puerto Rico's most visible beaches -- the Condado area near San Juan. There, the spill fouled six miles of shoreline, including a 1.5-mile stretch of beaches that serve the island's primary group of international hotels, now in their peak tourist season.

Local authorities said the odor of petroleum lifted in the first few days, and estimated that the beach cleanup would take two to three weeks. The nearest hotels to the spill, the landmark Caribe Hilton and the Art Deco Radisson Normandie, pledged free transportation to other beaches. (Puerto Rico has some 258 miles of beaches.) The neighboring Condado Plaza, Regency, Condado Beach and La Concha hotels made similar offers.

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